South Dakota Takes Quantum Leap

By Sean Carroll | July 11, 2007 11:32 am

According to the Argus Leader, via the Science Journalism Tracker. The National Science Foundation has finally decided on a location for its Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which has been up in the air for years now. The winner is the place that had a head start on its various competitors: the Homestake Mine in the Black Hills.

Homestake DUSEL

The underground lab will be the site for a diverse array of experiments, from searches for dark matter and proton decay to investigations into biology and geology under extreme conditions. The Homestake site is already famous, of course, as the home of Ray Davis’s neutrino experiment, where the solar neutrino problem was first identified. The mine itself, the deepest and (until recently) oldest operating mine in the Western Hemisphere, was operational until 2001. The NSF immediately wanted to take it over to use as a lab, but the Barrick Mining Corporation demanded that the government also assume any future liability for problems arising the mine (not a stance that fills one with confidence), and if not, they would flood it. While negotiations dragged on, others jumped into the game, and eventually a competition was launched that ended up choosing Homestake anyway. I’m not expert enough to judge whether the effort expended on the competition was all just a waste of time, or whether the ultimate scientific capabilities of the facility were really improved by the process.

  • jackd

    …Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which has been up in the air for years now.

    That’s a neat trick!

  • Ellipsis

    There is already one so-far under-utilized (and deeper!) underground lab right next door in Canada, SNOLAB.

    Until there is an experiment that _actually cannot fit_ in SNOLAB, this money could have been much better spent elsewhere (e.g. on the actual underground experiments, or elsewhere in subatomic physics).

  • Brian Gerke

    So what happened with the liability issue? Did the NSF take that on?

  • Carl Brannen

    “The mine itself, the oldest and deepest in the Western Hemisphere”

    Of course there are many many mines older than the Homestake which is only about a hundred years old. The Spanish were mining in this hemisphere soon after 1492. The Homestake claim was to “oldest operating”. But it’s no longer operating and no longer has that claim.

  • Sean

    Carl, true enough, I’ll edit the post.

  • Ellipsis

    Carl: true, nor does it properly have the claim to deepest, as least when it comes to scientific purposes. The deepest shafts are indeed at about 8100 ft, 7500 mwe, however Davis, and everyone since, have found those deep shafts unsuitable for experiment location (they are extremely damp, presently cavernless, and literally chock full of background sources of radiation), which is why he located his Homestake experiment in the cavern at 4000 mwe.

    On the other hand, SNOLAB’s clean and fully experiment-ready lab facilities (with many U.S. collaborators on SNO) are at 6020 mwe, the deepest in the world (with the exception of the Kolar mine in India, which certainly could not be considered experiment-ready at this time).

    It is true that a future gigantic water-Cherenkov type experiment, e.g. UNO, really would not fit at SNOLAB, as caverns of megaton experiment size would not be supported by the rock there. But essentially all _present and upcoming decade_ dark matter direct dectection and 0-nu bb decay experiments are at the 100 kg (and soon to be 1 ton) scale — that’s the equivalent of 1 cubic meter of water — a trivial fit for SNOLAB.

    And a project like UNO is clearly _not_ for the very near future. For one thing, even UNO would not be nearly large enough to detect actual standard model levels of proton decay — that would literally require a detector 4 orders of magnitude larger than even UNO! And topics such as theta13 and the CP phase delta are much better served by dedicated facilities like NOvA, T2K(K), Daya Bay, and Double Chooz than some behemoth blunderbuss money pit like UNO (+ new neutrino beamline). UNO is a project without a clear goal, just like this whole U.S. DUSEL issue. And I am speaking as one who is _all for_ deep underground science. NSF just has its priorities completely backwards here: it needs to focus on specific scientific measurements, and build _solely_ the necessary facilities to achieve its specific scientific goals. What’s needed now is more money for experiments like EXO, SuperCDMS, Zeplin/Xenon (which, btw, are really the same experiment and need to merge, despite the personality conflicts involved), DEAP, Majorana, etc. — NOT just tossing money down a new pit when presently there are _plenty_ of good ones around already.

  • Jon H

    On that diagram, where do the Kansan evolution teachers go?

  • gbob

    Anyone who thinks NSF (or any non-Canadian funding agency, for that matter)is going to throw a lot of money at a mine in Canada has little grasp of how science funding works.

  • Ellipsis


    The LHC received 500 million dollars in U.S. funding, and is still receiving.

    Perhaps you’d prefer they spent 14 billion just duplicating the LHC in the U.S.?

    I would hope my record of approximately 3 million in DOE Office of Science funding (lifetime, so far) might give me just a little tiny bit of perspective, gbob…

  • Charly

    I had been waiting for this announcement since last year. Our dark matter experiment benefits greatly from this result. Expect interesting results to come out of Davis’ cavern once again!

  • not_easily_amused

    I was once emergency-evacuated from level 4000 mwe in Homestake (me and everyone else, stench alarm having gone off, the works). All the levels below were flooded due to torrential (flash) rains. Not uncommon during SD summers, but this one was particularly bad. The problem is that the site has been excavated for so long that rainwater from the surface finds innumerable pathways to rush into the galleries. We almost did not make it: when the cage finally arrived we could see the water just a few feet below our level, looking down the Yates shaft. We had plenty time to watch it rise. Miners have to be some of the most poised individuals on the face of Earth (and beneath), yet quite a few composures slipped during the long, very long wait. The cage operator (who was trying to follow the normal evacuation procedure) probably remembers to this day what he was being called through the intercom. Me, I was too busy tending to my partner, who was busy himself attempting to control an extended bout of compulsive vomiting (once in a lifetime is enough exposure to a stench alarm, let me tell you). But I remember watching the miners’ panicked reactions and thinking “this is not good”.

    To cut a long story short, this was during a period of full mining operations. I personally do not plan to risk a similar situation when the place becomes an undermanned scientific laboratory. Ellipsis, you are pushing all the right buttons, the money should be going to the Physics, and the spirit of international collaboration should be leading us all to SNOlab. The only good news is that the laboratory is not built yet, the approval is for design work. Hopefully in the interim people will come back to their senses.

  • gbob

    My point being, that the US gov’t is not likely to pay a few 100M$ for an overseas laboratory, except in special cases (like LHC and ITER) where the project is truly international and requires contributions from many countries. I’m not aware of the SNO folks making such a proposal.

    Moreover, the various reports from the several independent review panels convened by NSF all pointed out that there is simply not enough useable deep underground space worldwide to accommodate all of the worthwhile experiments that people want to do. That sounds like a reasonable physics justification to me, but maybe our esteemed contributors know better than the NSF panels?

    And by the way, the argument that the money you would save by not doing DUSEL would somehow be better spent on Physics (what Physics, exactly, is not specified) doesn’t hold water. Large project money at the NSF comes out of a special account for major research equipment, so any money not spent on DUSEL would simply go to a different project; another telescope, perhaps, or nanocenters and the like. All these things may be worthy, but they are really what DUSEL will be competing against for funds, not your grant.

  • Ellipsis


    Is there a problem?

    I’d like to know why my comments appear to repeatedly be getting removed.

    Thank you.

  • Sean

    I don’t recall removing any of your comments; you’d have to tell me what was in them. Over the last 24 hours we’ve had some server problems, and it’s possible that things just got lost.

  • Ellipsis

    Oh man … and they were long too!!

    Never mind, I’ll try to reconstruct them soon, when I get a chance. :


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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